Friday, September 24, 2010

Meaning Generating Animals (24 September 2010)

The 'problem of meaning' is something we hear a lot about; people are always searching for ‘meaning’ for their lives, or else they are despairing that life has no meaning, or else – and worst of all – a certain number of people argue that unless you believe in what they believe in, there can be no 'true' meaning for you.

I have come to think that the 'problem of meaning' stems from the fact that we are ‘growing up’ as a species and coming to terms with the fact of our existence in ways that our ancestors never had to face.  We live in a world that is as extensive as the earth itself; we do not live in the kinds of small, isolated, communities that managed their own meaning-generation – via mythological and religious systems of belief and thought – as our ancestors did, more or less unchallenged by an ‘outside’ world.  We are instantly connected with people on other continents by way of the internet and television broadcasts, newspapers and phone calls.  We are thus more vividly aware of the incredible diversity of cultures, beliefs and life-ways than our ancestors, even a century ago, ever were.  This has often been cited as a source of the 'loss of meaning,' for how can what I believe to be meaningful have validity, when there are people who believe something different? 

The problem of meaning is embedded in the problem of diversity.

The 'problem of meaning,' as I see it, seems to stem from the fact that there are multiple ways of making life meaningful, and there is no 'absolute' standard for what is to be considered 'genuine’ meaning.  What we have to understand, however – what we must grasp if we are going to get over this 'problem' – is that we are the meaning generating animal, and that this provides the key to a meaningful life for us as individuals, as well as the rune for any kind of genuine meaningfulness for communities.

It used to be thought (and still is, unfortunately, by many supernaturalists, religionists and others who appeal to some kind of “authority”) that 'meaning' is something that can only be 'given' to us by someone or something bigger, higher, greater, more powerful, etc., than we are.  By this I mean that, for many people across the ages, life was made meaningful for them because they believed a god or else a human tyrant told them what life meant.  They 'received' their meaning 'from above,' whether that meaning was religious or ideological.

The solution to the 'problem of meaning' is to be found, I would like to propose, in an evolutionary perspective on life and depends on ourselves as a manifestation of the ages-long process of evolution on this planet.  We have evolved as a sentient species that has consciousness, a key aspect of which is the capacity for symbolic and metaphorical interpretation of life and all that we find in the world. 

Human history is suffused with symbolic systems of meaning; whether these were religious in nature, or else political, philosophical or simply personal and thus idiosyncratic.  Human beings interpret their worlds; their contexts—their ‘environment’ isn't just taken 'as found,' but is given a depth of resonance by the way in which we symbol things, use ‘things’ as metaphors, and tell stories about ourselves and the cosmos in which we 'find' ourselves.

What I would like to urge, here, is that we are still symbolic animals; we are interpreters, and that – once we see that this is the result of our particular evolutionary history – the revelations of science regarding the world we find ourselves in and our own species can become the fresh foundation for new interpretations of life such as will can make our existence and our situation in the world meaningful once again.

But we must first embrace an evolutionary understanding of ourselves, and accept that we are the meaning-generating animals.  We have emerged as sentient, conscious animals from a universe that has no implicit meaning in itself.  However, evolution has invested us with a symbolic, metaphorical mind, as well as a rational mind, and by way of a symbolic, metaphorical kind of thinking and feeling we can make meaning for ourselves in the world as science has revealed it to us.

The truth that we are meaning-generating animals and that this is our evolutionary inheritance is something that needs to be embraced spiritually.  The realization that we make our own meaning is not 'the end of religion' or 'the end of faith;' it is simply the end of a childish understanding of ourselves that insists that only some transcendent authority figure can give us meaning.  If there is something corresponding to the word 'God,' and that being has something to do with the way we are (perhaps it could be seen as "the artist of the evolutionary history of the cosmos") then the fact that we are the meaning-generating animal would have theological consequences, as well as spiritual implications for those who are religious.

Yet one does not have to be religious in any way – or even have supernatural beliefs – in order to accept that we are meaning generating animals!  A thoroughly naturalistic worldview is sufficient to ground our understanding of ourselves as meaning-generators.  And this may well be deeply liberating, as it means that every single human being on the planet – every single person who has ever lived or who will ever live – has the capacity to interpret their world, their environment, and their life-path in ways that are symbolic and metaphorical, as well as historical and empirical, and therefore generate meaning for themselves.

Communities of people also have this ability, and groups of people devoted to the love of life, in one way or another, have the freedom – simply as the kind of animal we are – to find a sense of meaningfulness for themselves as well.

So we no longer need to look to authority figures; or even to look outside ourselves – for the source of meaning, for the origin of meaning lies within us.  Meaning arises from an interaction between us and our environments filtered through our experiences.

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